Violence is abhorrent, on that everyone can agree. There is a moral necessity to strive for something better, something more. In international relations there exists what are commonly referred to as the four options. The second option is warfare, the third is covert actions, and the fourth is nuclear. The first option, however, is diplomacy. This option speaks to that which is better; the belief that as humanity has evolved so has its capacity to understand and peacefully effect change. Freud once said, “Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock.” The international community, through greater emphasis on organizations such as The UN and EU, is attempting to embody this principal. There can be little doubt that a greater dialogue among the various nation states is a positive thing. Violence, and especially war, should rightfully be avoided at almost any cost.
Terrorism, by definition, incorporates violence. It is, in fact, the use of violence, but the use of violence within a greater context. Americans, particularly after 9/11, often ignore the larger issues intrinsic to a terrorist act. In this we are not alone. Violence is deplorable and grievances should be discussed, but what happens when the entities involved are voiceless? Those that perpetrate terror are frequently ignored. Avenues for discussion, especially within the greater global context, are generally unavailable to them. In this regard, terrorism draws attention, specifically through the media, to causes that may otherwise have gone unconsidered.
Terrorism has been referred to as propaganda by deed. Ignoring the nuanced connotations of the word, propaganda is merely communication. This essay is not written as justification of terrorist methodologies. This essay is not intended to advocate the use of violence. What this essay is intended to do, I hope even minimally, is to remind people that inherent within a terrorist act is a larger grievance. Sometimes, certainly not all the time, these grievances are legitimate, and the violence pursued should be understood as a communicative manifestation of an injustice. Freud’s thinking may be true, but occasionally a rock has to be thrown before anyone will even acknowledge the voice that cast it.
The Provisional Irish Republican Army operated within Northern Ireland and Britain up until 2005. The group, which was officially founded in 1969, traced its origins back to the beginning of the 20th century. The mention of this timeframe is meant to demonstrate just how long their plight was ignored.
Throughout its existence the IRA engaged in numerous terrorist acts. Some of these acts, specifically the assassination of British police officers and soldiers, can be seen as retributive. Without question there was a certain thinking within the organization that if enough damage was done the British would simply leave—this was predicated on the idea that at some point England would feel it wasn’t worth the lives to stay. Other acts, however, such as the bombing of governmental buildings, should be interpreted as acts of political communication. In each instance the IRA actually phoned in warnings ahead of time, though admittedly sometimes failing to give enough advanced warning.
The IRA furnished each new volunteer with a manual on how to properly conduct themselves. This manual was commonly known as the Green Book. In addition to providing a historical context, and laying out a methodology for violence, the Green Book touched on considerations of publicity. One of the IRA’s strategies, as stated in the manual, was, “To sustain the war and gain support for its ends by National and International propaganda and publicity campaigns,” (Coogan 1994). This direct statement demonstrates that the IRA desired to communicate its cause. Furthermore, it highlights the issue of attempting to bring international attention to its reasons, specifically through the use of violence (what the organization termed war). The manual talks at length about creating a unified Ireland. This was the main purpose of the IRA. However, the group’s ranks swelled not because of an idea of nationhood, for better or worse, but because the Protestant Northern Irish, and along with them the British government, engaged in systematic abuse of the Catholic majority.
Rebel Heats, by Kevin Toolis, chronicles the lives of a Northern Irish, Catholic family, the Finucanes. The book documents the many injustices the family dealt with while attempting to live within the region. These injustices were perpetrated by Protestants who identified with their British ancestry--and they were tolerated by the British-backed government. The Finucane family, while their children were still young, lived in a Protestant neighborhood. Their home was taken away from them, through threats of violence, and given over to a Protestant family. Protestant neighbors demanded the family leave. One of the children remembers their neighbors telling them, “If youse ain’t out tonight youse are getting burned out the night,” (Toolis 1997). This moment, the first in a long series of injustices faced, started two of the Finucane children on their path toward IRA membership and eventual violence. It is important to realize that this event was not unique to the Finucane family. As Toolis notes, one thousand and five hundred Catholics were burned out of their homes (Toolis 1997). This was not the only injustice Catholic families faced. British forces regularly arrested, imprisoned and tortured Irish civilians. The Catholic citizenry of Northern Ireland had no political rights. The IRA attracted members as people realized they possessed no means to air their grievances.
Many of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland attempted to engage in dialogue with the British government through more peaceful means. Civil rights marches were either ignored or met with violence. One of the most famous cases resulted in the event known as Bloody Sunday. On January 30th, 1972 Irish crowds marched in Derry to protest internment without trial. The march resulted in the deaths of twenty-six unarmed civilians. The British military opened fire and slaughtered peaceful protesters. What was worse is that afterwards they made no attempt to reconcile the situation. As a BBC article from the period notes, “Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, stated that if the illegal march - protesting against internment without trial - had not taken place there would not have been any deaths,” (BBC 1972). This is the quintessential example of a group attempting to communicate, through peaceful means, and finding themselves ignored (or in this case attacked). Is it any wonder that when faced with such a reality terrorism, especially when broadcast to an international community, seems like an effective way to get a message out.
The Irish Republican Army is one example of a populace engaging in acts of terror as a form of communication. As was first mentioned in the introduction, violence is abhorrent and while it should never be justified it can be understood. The Catholic population of Northern Ireland was oppressed, neglected, and beaten. The British government left that population with no alternative venue with which to communicate their grievances. The violence that ensued, manifested in the forms of assassinations and bombings, can be seen as the direct result of British policy. Media coverage of such actions, both within England itself, and abroad, aided in pressuring the British government to act justly. The troubles are certainly not the only example of such circumstances. One has only to think of the Algerians in 1970’s or, perhaps more relevantly because it is ongoing, the Palestinian struggle today. Terrorism is a form of communication and it must be understood as such. The political reasons terrorist groups engage in their action should always be explored.
'bloody sunday' report excuses army. (1972). http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/19/newsid_2491000/2491125.stm
Coogan, T. (1994). The ira: a history. Robert Rinehart Publishers.
Toolis, K. (1997). Rebel hearts: journeys within the ira's soul . St. Martins Griffin.